Liberalism Leads to Marxism
Conservatives have no need to look to leftist economic models for inspiration.
It is a given among the political Right that Marxism poses an existential threat to Western civilization. It must be stated clearly that there is no common good to be found in Marxism, and while it may provide some observations as to our current liberal order, it is no substitute for a real common good rooted in the Christian faith, and no authentic Christian or postliberal can have anything to do with the ideology.
In his 2022 book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Yoram Hazony devotes a full chapter to “the challenge of Marxism,” a timely discussion given the near-total takeover of higher education and other powerful institutions by an insidious form of cultural Marxism that has revealed the inevitable weaknesses of liberalism. Hazony argues that “although many liberals and conservatives say that Marxism is ‘nothing but a great lie,’ this isn’t quite right.” If this were so, Hazony notes, then why have liberal societies proven themselves so vulnerable to Marxist ideological assumptions? The answer is that “Marxism captures certain aspects of the truth that are missing from Enlightenment liberalism.”
It is true that human beings inevitably organize themselves into groups and that these groups will experience conflict. Sometimes groups will engage in outright oppression of one another, leaving the oppressed group with limited options for redress. Such conflict of groups, including among economic classes, exists in modern liberal societies as well as traditional and even totalitarian regimes. Moreover, Hazony explains:
Marx is right when he says that the dominant group tends to see its own preferred laws and policies as reflecting ‘reason’ or ‘nature,’ and works to disseminate its way of looking at things throughout society, so that various kinds of injustice and oppression tend to be obscured from view. … By analyzing society in terms of power relations among classes or groups, we can bring to light important political phenomena to which Enlightenment liberal theories — theories that tend to reduce politics to the individual and his or her private liberties — are systemically blind.
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For all the Left’s efforts to paint Western society as systematically oppressive to various identity groups, the most pervasive form of conflict is still the one for which Marx was immediately concerned — that of capitalists and labor. Today, once thriving communities have been devastated by underemployment, drug addiction, and deaths of despair, while liberals on both the Left and Right simply shake their heads at what they perceive as the cultural ignorance and lack of economic motivation on the part of the working class.
However, Hazony argues that Marx is wrong to assume that every conflict is oppressive in nature, or that group conflicts inevitably mean the violent overthrow of the perceived “oppressor class.” And of course, Marxism’s biggest flaw of all is having no explanation for how, once the oppressed have destroyed the oppressors, a new peaceful regime without group conflict is supposed to emerge.
Hazony goes on to argue why liberalism inevitably leads to Marxism. Liberalism’s highest values are equality and freedom (interpreted as a maximization of choices and liberty from all obligations other than those chosen by the individual). But Marxists never run out of real examples of “unfreedom” and inequality (because limitations on freedom and various inequalities are inevitable products of human society), and therefore liberals, embarrassed by these examples, acquiesce again and again to Marxist demands until liberalism itself has been destroyed.
Critical theory has wide appeal because it directly acknowledges that liberal societies continue to experience differences in a variety of metrics based on race and other factors. But the Marxist fallacy is to see every single difference as the result of oppression and to see only one solution: retributive discrimination against the formerly oppressive class, a perspective that ultimately leads to violence and tyranny.
The answer to class conflict is not Marxism. Genuine conservatism recognizes that human conflicts are inevitable, but not the whole of politics. Instead of trying to reconcile class conflict, effective traditional societies have ways of uniting conflicting tribes around larger, common purposes — making them one in the common good. Conservative societies seek ways of fostering needed social change that reinforce the core institutions and traditions of the culture. The resolution of class conflicts is seen not as a revolutionary activity of oppressor versus oppressed, but the restoration of a deeper, original, underlying unity. This is, in essence, “common good conservatism,” and why the Right should not embrace the Left on economic issues.
In practical terms, this is what Patrick Deneen imagines in his recent book when he calls for a “mixed constitution” that promotes a holistic vision of the common good. Politics is not an economic activity. Rather, it is a social and cultural endeavor in the common good, which ultimately shapes a political community’s economy. Such a mixed constitution does not seek to eliminate one class in favor of the other or end all class conflict, but rather to unite the classes in the common good.
Postliberals have no need to look to leftist economic models for inspiration in this regard. Such a view of the common good is as ancient as the ideas of Aristotle, whose Politics and Nicomachean Ethics both articulate a vision of society that serves the interests of the whole, and not just those of the ruling class.
Pope Leo XIII, writing in Rerum Novarum (1891), rejected the idea that “class is naturally hostile to class,” and that the wealthy and the working men are intended by nature to live in mutual conflict:
So irrational and so false is this view that the direct contrary is the truth. Just as the symmetry of the human frame is the result of the suitable arrangement of the different parts of the body, so in a State is it ordained by nature that these two classes should dwell in harmony and agreement, so as to maintain the balance of the body politic. Each needs the other: capital cannot do without labor, nor labor without capital. Mutual agreement results in the beauty of good order, while perpetual conflict necessarily produces confusion and savage barbarity.
Pope Leo went on to articulate the obligations of both workers and employers to one another and gave lengthy discussion to the specific duties of employers who possess considerable advantage over laborers, and to the duties of the state in ensuring noble conduct in business affairs. In the latter, the state is expressing an explicit element of its core purpose: to instill virtue in the people and create an environment in which they can seek eternal salvation.
Forty years later, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the intensification of labor conflicts throughout Europe and the United States, Pope Pius XI expanded on the ideas in Rerum Novarum with his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. Pope Pius reiterated the Church’s condemnation of communism, including its assumptions, tactics, and goals, while heightening the call for an emphasis on the common good in economic concerns.
“No one can be, at the same time, a sincere Catholic and a true Socialist,” Pope Pius wrote, and yet, “Just as the unity of human society cannot be founded on an opposition of classes, so also the right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces.” By individual virtue, collective charity, and the active engagement of the state, we must seek to unite capital and labor, rich and poor, and elites and the working classes around a clear Christian vision of the common good.
As American postliberals and Christians seek to evangelize our increasingly lost culture and bring about a regime of the common good, contemporary circumstances call for a reordering of political and economic priorities. We must seek this new order as a restoration of the ancient and noble principles of the Anglo-American conservative political tradition and Catholic social teaching, which hold both a realist view of human nature along with an encompassing vision of the common good.
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